What if we can learn how creating art generates spiritual understanding?
What if artists hold clues for linking our spiritual and behavioral selves?
What if religions looked to artists as spiritual teachers?
In Colombia, South America, a small group is taking on a very big task as they delve into a mystery that is as confounding today as it has been for centuries.
“We want to go very deeply into the exploration of spiritual experience and artistic creation,” says Carlos Miguel Gómez, an associate professor in the School of Human Sciences at Universidad del Rosario and himself a poet and philosopher.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s directing an innovative project involving seven Colombian artists who work in a variety of media, as well as a social scientist and a philosopher. The intent is to study artists’ thinking, processes, and outputs in interplay with spiritual experiences. Using the investigative tools of social science and the interpretive methods of philosophy, the team hopes to yield new insights into longstanding claims that art can be more than just a sensory experience – that it can in fact also reveal and give meaning to spiritual experiences. Despite an abundance of theories and anecdotes, such ideas are mostly conjecture, with very little concrete evidence to support them. What’s more, although some ultra- sophisticated, scientific research is being done to better understand the experience of art, most of it is spectator centric. What sets Gómez’s study apart is its focus on artists and what they create.
“Methodologically, for me it was important to begin with the creative process because that’s where art originates. It is there that meaning must first emerge,” he claims. “So, we want to see inside the heart, the mind and the soul of artists, to understand what’s going on when they try to express their experience of God, the divine, or the meaning of life in a poem, a song, a painting or any other art form. These sorts of experiences are hard to put into words. That’s why art is normally part of spiritual traditions – to try to express what cannot be otherwise expressed.”
The project includes seven weekend workshops plus online discussion sessions occurring during the weeks between. Held in retreat settings, each workshop is organized around a guiding topic and a series of spiritual practices – inspiring readings, contemplation, meditation, prayer, nature walks and mind/body exercises, and artistic exploration for example. Other important components are discussions and other activities designed for observing, describing and discussing the creative processes. In addition, participants keep a journal throughout the project.
“This mix of third-party observation and first-person introspection is essential to the methodology this project is testing,” says Gómez. “The participants aren’t just objects of research or typical informants, but they themselves are researchers of their own processes. Because you cannot access the inner life of others just from the outside, as if you’re putting them under a microscope. So we’re also using self-reflective techniques.”
The interdisciplinary and collaborative aspects of the project are also key. Although enterprises in Silicon Valley and far beyond have realized that innovative breakthroughs are rarely solitary, artists today typically work alone and tend to presume their art “speaks for itself.” This makes documentation of their experiences and thought processes hard to come by. Gómez is hopeful that the communal structure of this project will stimulate deeper reflection and richer creative output among its participants than working competitively and individually.
Each workshop grapples with a fundamental theme of spiritual experience:
“We are coming together as a community of practice – people with different perspectives, different knowledge, different backgrounds and different interests. At the same time, we are all academics or artists and all spiritually oriented people with a common aim of trying to discover something, which we can do only through collaboration and dialogue,” Gómez explains. “We come together as artists and thinkers in the metaphor of a circle without any hierarchy to discuss our experiences and questions.”
Participants have time between activities to develop interpretations of the workshop themes in their own artistic work. These workshops are featured in a series of short videos on the project website and below. To fully capture the creative and reflective processes of participants, the videos also include interviews and footage of workshop activities.
Data produced via this project will be explored and analyzed by the participating social scientist and philosopher. Their goal is to identify potential patterns and interpret meaning.
“Meaning is for us the key term because spiritual understanding always has to do with discovering meaning,” says Gómez. “That’s an important difference between explanation, which is more typical of the natural sciences and has to do with reasons or causes and effects. Instead, we are interested in describing how art generates understanding, and how that understanding relates to discovering or giving meaning to the biggest issues of life.
“Our basic theoretical starting point is that understanding comes through experience and that there are particular forms of experience. One form we call spiritual or religious experiences – feeling yourself in the presence of a divine reality by means of which something is revealed that goes beyond your own ego and influences your habits and way of living.”
What’s discovered in this project could provide early evidence for art as a conduit for spiritual understanding and lay the groundwork for further research. It may also shed light on the possibility that artists can teach us all something fundamentally important about ourselves and our world. The result could be the continuous unfolding of more cohesive, meaningful lives.
“We can all live more humanely if we understand ourselves as creatures of meaning, as people who have spiritual questions and are on spiritual quests,” Gómez concludes. “Humanity is the basic material for the artist. So, in that way, this is also a testimonial project. You see the artist as a human being working with her or his humanity to produce art that makes you feel connected to your own humanity. And these experiences are forms of understanding in themselves because, in them, you discover value in the world, value in yourself, value in life and what is worth living for. And that is what we call a spiritual experience.”